Thursday, September 22, 2011

One Of Those Who Changes The World

I'll call the girl Melissa. It was my second year at Woodland Park and she was part of one of the first classes I'd taught for two full years. To say she was a bright girl is an understatement, and while she tended to be a bit reserved around adults, she was a favorite among her girlfriends, always at the center of the play. The girls often set up shop under the loft with their princess dresses, babies and story books, nesting there together for large chunks of our mornings. They seemed so content that I generally left them to their own devices, stopping by occasionally to sort of check in, but otherwise figuring my attentions were more necessary elsewhere.

As the school year wore on, however, I began to receive "reports" from the other girls: "Melissa was mean to me," "Melissa said I can't be a princess," "Melissa isn't going to invite me to her birthday party." When we went together to talk to Melissa about these things, she, not yet 5, would insist it wasn't so, that of course her friend could be a princess, or naturally "everyone" is invited to the birthday party. (Hey, I said she was bright.) And everyone was happily included until the next "report." And the reports escalated, each ending like the last with Melissa denying everything before inviting everyone back into the game.

I suppose we could have almost lived with that dynamic. After all, Melissa might have been lying to me, but she was in the end "fixing" the hurt feelings she'd caused, but it wasn't long before the reports started coming from parents whose children were, at home, describing the same behavior. Some of them were livid, telling me their child had cried inconsolably. The word "bully" was used more than once. I was able to convince most of them that preschoolers are incapable of the premeditation and intent to bully, but it didn't change their sour feelings and their insistence that we find a way to end it.

I have a daughter too. I remember feeling the same way when she cried all the way home after school.

I spoke with Melissa's mom, asking if there was anything going on at home, trying to find some source or reason. Not surprisingly, she was already aware of the reports of Melissa's behavior, felt sick about it, was at her wit's end about where it came from, and was meeting with the same sort of unsatisfying resistance I'd experienced. 

At school, I started positioning myself nearby the play, hoping to overhear, hoping to catch that moment when things were going wrong so that I could do some specific teaching, rather than than relying on the generalities into which I'd been so far forced, but to no avail. Then, finally, one day when I'd been needed on the far side of the room, a ruckus erupted under the loft. I could see Melissa standing threateningly while another girl cried. Melissa was talking, softly, but forcefully. I started across the room and as I got nearer, I heard what I'd been waiting to hear:

"You cannot come in here because this castle is only for dark haired princesses and you have yellow hair." That's when she caught sight of me coming nearer, "But if you want to come in I'll let you. Come in and play with me and we can be best friends." It was so smooth, I almost didn't believe I'd heard the first part by the time I was on the scene. (I did say, this was a bright girl.)

Yesterday I wrote about our school's use of the Vivian Gussin Paley rule, based on her book You Can't Say You Can't Play

I knew about the rule long before I knew it came from a book. It was part of my own daughter's cooperative preschool experience, a rule I came to value while seeing it put into practice in the classroom. It's a rule we've had in all of my 10 years as a teacher, and it's one I know Woodland Park's parents support. 

Our time in preschool is our time to learn how to be together. Our 3-year-olds are only in class 7.5 hours a week, and the 4-year-olds 10. They have the whole rest of the week to play solitarily, to be read to, to snuggle with their grown-ups, to be alone with a best friend. We are here in school to learn the skills of living in a community and arbitrary exclusion has no place here.

But it's more than that. Most of the time, we teach children what they will need to know in order to function in the larger world as it really is, but other times we teach them about an ideal world in the hope that if enough of them learn it, there will come a day when they as citizens in a democracy will make it real. I think You Can't Say You Can't Play falls into that category. Inclusion should always be the goal in a democracy, which is the fundamental belief that all of us acting together, each contributing our ideas, talents and beliefs, will make the best of all possible worlds, one that at least progresses toward an ideal even if it will never achieve it. And we want children to know that if they feel they or others are being unfairly excluded, they can speak up about it and demand inclusion because that is a fundamental right of citizenship.

You Can't Say You Can't Play is directed at the kind of exclusion Melissa engaged in, the type where others are excluded for no other reason than the whim of someone exerting arbitrary, illicit power. Where the game itself is exclusion. We are in, you are out. We get the red scarves, you're stuck with the blue ones. We sit in the front of the bus, you sit in the back. You Can't Say You Can't Play as a piece of legislation, passed into law each year by the children via consensus, that expresses the ideal of inclusion, even while we know we can never fully attain it. In that way it is like every law ever passed by any legislative body: a statement of community ideals.

And also like other laws, there are all kinds of exceptions. In yesterday's post, I wrote about a corollary that allows for someone to be excluded if they insist on wrecking someone else's game. You can be temporarily excluded if, for instance, all six needlepoint hoops are being used and you are the seventh, or when someone says, "I want to finish this puzzle by myself." Those are valid, common sense reasons for a superficial exclusion, ones that require a discussion and a decision by the judicial branch of our little community's government, complete with aggrieved parties, an impromptu jury of disinterested "citizens" (their fellow classmates), and me (or another adult) serving as the judge. And in that discussion we interpret the law, which is where the corollaries arise.

By this time, Melissa was 5-years-old, as sophisticated as it gets when it comes to preschool. She knew the rule, and clearly knew she was breaking it. Her secretiveness around the adults was clearly an attempt to avoid getting mixed up with the executive branch, which is also me (I didn't say we've achieved a perfect democratic model).

Having heard her actual words of exclusion, I was able to say to Melissa, "I heard you say that she could not come in the castle." I then pointed to the list of self-made rules we post on our wall each year and said, "You and your friends agreed: you can't say you can't play." This is the only formal consequence we've ever imposed for rule-breaking, a simple reminder of the rule and its origination in community agreement. 

Melissa and I had a lot of discussions about this rule over the next couple months, often exploring her ideas about possible exceptions. She was still the subject of "reports" on occasion, but they became less frequent over time. I stayed in touch with her mother and know she continued to exclude others upon occasion at least through 1st grade, but mom thought it was getting better and still talked about You Can't Say You Can't Play at home. 

I've lost touch with Melissa's family, but I hope she still bears within her echoes of that community ideal and that she will someday come to truly make it her own. Then maybe she will be one of those who changes the world.

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Anonymous said...

Love the follow up to "you can't say you can't play". Although it was unnecessary to some, exceptions you believe should not have to be said indeed have to be said. Keep teaching alive and well as always!

Jeanne Zuech said...

I had a grin cross over my face when I read the "she said I cannot come to her birthday party"... the statement is like daggers and poison and the end of the world as children know it. My grin was because it is amazing how universal certain phrases are with young children and that they learn to apply those powerful phrases at the exact right hurtful moment. I've worked thru this INJURY endless times in my career :)

As for the "you can't say you can't play" (Paley is inspirational) - while I don't use the direct phrase, I do employ the concept. With my 4s & 5s, they take it as a "challenge" at school when someone wants to join their play/game that they all then get to "reinvent" the game to suit the new number of friends: It used to be a game for 2, now we transform what we were playing into a game for 4 or 5 or whatever. My students learn to say "I am ready to join in" instead of asking IF they can play :)
cheers to you and another thumbs up post!

Aunt Annie said...

Thank you Tom! I think this is one of my favourite posts of yours. Hearing how your rule was used in quite a dark situation is an 'aha' moment for me. And I love it that you shared that darkness, because our world isn't all light.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

This is a good, thoughtful, and thought provoking post.

I found your description of the whole "Melissa affair", very interesting, and I applaud you for handling this situation sensitively. I like that your form of consequence is the reminder of the rule which was established by the group.

I'm thinking, and I wonder if you also may be, that sometimes those children who seem to stand out from the norm, in persistently hurting others, or going counter to the social rules, may be strong individuals, and may eventually be life changers. And I think Melissa did learn gradually, to follow the social rule of inclusion.

I will have to read Paley, and thank you for sharing this.

Alice Chen said...

Hi, I really like the articles that you wrote. Especially this one!! For me, I believe that each kids is special :) Also, I immediately feel engaged when you mention about telling kids " You can't say You can't play". School is a place for them to build up social ability. Your article helps me to take a keep look at my students. Thanks for sharing!!

Alice Chen said...

Hi, I like your article about what happened with the kids at school. I believe that every kids are special. Especially, I like the saying "You can't say You can't play" I immediately feel connected with it. After reading your articles, I actually take a deep look of my students. Thanks for sharing!!

Sara said...

We use "You can't say you can't play" in our Pre-K classroom also, and it is nothing short of miraculous. We added our own corollary - "Be a friend when you join in." So, if a friend asks to play, the answer is always yes, but the joiner has to respect the play that was already underway. Preschool is a place for everyone to learn to get along with others. If some children are routinely excluded, those children will never get the practice they need.